The Righteousness of God
Martin Luther was a monk in the sixteenth century living in what we would today call northern Germany. A man of tender conscience, he feared God in the very depths of his soul. He pictured God as a celestial ogre who was recording men’s sins threatening death and hell every step of his way. Popular piety didn’t help either with dramatic stories of purgatory where the faithful spent aeons in payment for sins committed in a place not much better than hell itself. It was this phrase we see here in verse seventeen, “the righteousness of God,” that scared Luther to death, for he saw it as that perfect righteousness of God whereby He judges people for their innumerable sins, both known and unknown, and thereby condemns them. He sought to satisfy this implacable God knowing all the while he could never do so—and he learned to hate God.
But this is not the God that Paul speaks of at all in these two verses. Romans 1:16-17 is considered the theme of this letter. After telling us that as a born again believer and apostle that is indebted to preach the gospel to both the learned and unlearned, he wants us to know that this is something for which he is unashamed. Why? Because the gospel “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” Note that the gospel does not manifest the power of God but is that very power. The divine order is that it be preached to the Jew first as God’s covenant people of old, but it is still preached to all.
And how is it this power of God for salvation to all who believe? Certainly not by people living up to God’s standard of righteousness, which no one could ever possibly fulfill. Luther’s “reformation breakthrough” was his discovery that the righteousness of God is that righteousness whereby God makes those who by faith believe in him righteous before Him. This is why this righteousness of God is “revealed from faith to faith,” meaning that it is by faith “through and through.” Paul verifies this understanding of God’s righteousness in his letter to the Philippians where he writes that he wants to “be found in [Christ], not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (3:9). And then Paul gives us his proof text for this fundamental doctrine of the faith from an obscure prophet in the Old Testament named Habakkuk: “The righteous shall live by faith” (2:4). The rest of Romans will flesh out this central theme: We are made just or right before God by faith in His Son, a faith which we then live out in faithfulness.